You've undoubtedly heard the big news: Governor Gregoire has called for a hiring freeze in state government. Of course, like everything else, this announcement has led to an escalation in the political rhetoric over the state budget.
Naturally, Dino Rossi used this announcement to complain that the Governor didn't "go far enough." Among Rossi's helpful suggestions is to "suspend salary negotiations with state employee groups over pay increases until we know the full extent of our deficit next year."
The fact is that Rossi has always demonstrated hostility toward state workers. The state budget he wrote in 2003 resulted in four straight years of declining take-home pay for state employees, and also underfunded our pension system so that both the state and the employees are now paying higher rates to make up the difference. In the intervening years, Rossi has repeatedly proposed gutting state employee collective bargaining rights and dramatically increasing the level of contracting out and outsourcing.
Gregoire's announced hiring freeze will probably make things a little tougher for some of our members, and it will increase anxiety levels throughout state government. Still, I applaud the Governor's action. It's far better to stop hiring than to start laying people off.
All indications are that we are going to be facing a pretty rough budget cycle in the 2009 Legislative Session. The moronic fiscal policies emanating from Washington DC have driven our national economy into the tank, and state and local government budgets are getting hammered all across the nation. Washington state is actually in better shape than most of the nation, but there's no way we can completely avoid the storm altogether. We are going to take some lumps.
Rossi and his supporters would want us to believe that it's the Governor's wild spending that has resulted in the current budget deficit. The Seattle Times recently ran a lengthy article by Andrew Garber describing how state spending has increased by $8 billion over the past four years. Rossi says that's too much. Gregoire says the increases are responsible investments. How you view the ink blot depends on whether you think government is good or you think government is bad.
The WA St Budget and Policy Center published a great analysis a few weeks ago demonstrating that state spending, as a percent of personal income, has remained virtually flat over the years. In other words, state spending increases have essentially tracked population and economic growth rates.
Although Rossi is quick to criticize the Governor, he never actually says, in any meaningful detail, what exactly it is he would cut. Which of the spending increases over the past four years does he think was a bad idea?
According to Garber, half of the new spending was for K-12 education, and most of that was simply funding voter-approved initiatives to increase teacher salaries and to reduce class sizes. When Rossi wrote the state budget in 2003, he simply "suspended" those initiatives. Apparently, initiatives sponsored by Tim Eyman are the sacrosanct "will of the people." But initiatives sponsored by teachers and education advocates can be disregarded whenever they're inconvenient.
There were other spending increases under Gregoire: more social workers in the Children's Administration to protect kids at risk; increases at DOC to staff a new prison and better supervise offenders after they have been released from prison; more health care coverage for children; and the expansion of pre-kindergarten early learning programs. Again, what would Rossi cut?
Rossi won't say what he would cut, but we do have some indications based on the state budget he wrote in 2003: he cut health care programs, especially programs for poor children; he cut public safety, especially the supervision of felons who have been released from prison; and he slashed state employee compensation.
The truth is, it's not in any candidate's best interest to talk about specific budget cuts or revenue proposals, so it's probably unrealistic to expect an honest discussion about the state budget in the heat of a campaign. But that just means it's our responsibility, as voters and state employees, to educate ourselves about these issues. If we do, it will become more and more clear that it's Dino Rossi that the state of Washington really can't afford. -- Dennis